Why are we so slow to fight Zika? The fault is in our words
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Just back from a seven-week recess, the U.S. Senate lost no time in once again dropping the ball on desperately needed funding to combat the Zika epidemic even as the crisis continues to escalate.

How to explain this delay? The most obvious reason is a cynical Republican-backed effort to tie Zika funding to restrictions on Planned Parenthood, something that Democrats have predictably refused to go along with. But there is also another less visible culprit that has been with us from the start: improbably calming rhetoric that has slowed the will to act.

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One example: The tendency of those in the CDC and WHO to speak in terms of personal responsibility — on actions that individuals can take to protect themselves. These include avoiding travel to areas where Zika is prevalent, wearing long sleeves and pants, using bug spray, and practicing safe sex through abstinence or condom use. The implication: if we are just careful enough, we can protect ourselves. This vital information is not even on the front pages of their websites, further suggesting that Zika is not a high priority.

Also slowing the response is the fact that Zika has not for the most part been described as a clear and present danger in the United States. Admittedly, the tide could turn with the recent announcement that mosquitoes in Miami Beach have tested positive for the virus, signaling it may pose a growing threat in affluent areas. But to date, the U.S. media has downplayed the dangers of homegrown Zika. We’ve been assured it is limited in scope, and nothing most of us need to worry about. It is a neighborhood problem with its epicenter in the Wynwood area of Miami, a largely Hispanic community with a rich history of Puerto Rican immigration.

Not our neighborhood, not our problem.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Before AIDS was recognized as a serious health concern in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Africans were infected with the virus. Then, when U.S. cases finally garnered attention, we were reassured that the threat was only to the male gay community — not our “neighborhood.” Then too, we saw a focus on personal responsibility. In 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released his AIDS report with a plea to abstain from sex, practice monogamy, and use condoms. Travel to Africa was discouraged. Haiti was labeled ground zero for the spread in the United States and travel there discouraged.

To be sure, the number of cases in the United States has not reached hundreds of thousands. As of September 1, there were 16,832 reported cases within the U.S. and its territories –2,738 travel related and 14,094 locally acquired primarily in Puerto Rico. How do these numbers compare to the rest of the world? That is difficult to answer because the WHO Situation Reports only tells us that 72 countries are impacted at this time. A total of actual cases is not reported. You can see a map of the world, its spread across the southern region, and read reassurances that Zika has existed in the majority of these countries for years, the people are probably immune and its spread slow. Its impact on the rest of the world is clearly a mystery.

Nevertheless, a rather steady increase in both the continental U.S. and its territories is reported daily. In one week, nearly 2,000 new cases were discovered in Puerto Rico. If Zika poses “a hidden threat to future generations of Puerto Ricans” then does it not for all who live in the U.S. and its territories? Even our current Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy predicts that 25 percent of Puerto Rico’s population will acquire it by the end of this year. As Americans, we have a tendency to think of Puerto Rico as a foreign country somewhere over there far, far away. But, it is part of US and close.

Like that once mysterious virus HIV, which we now realize is associated with a variety of ailments ending with AIDS, we still have a great deal to learn about Zika. We must address this pandemic regardless of its epicenter. Major healthcare organizations must sound the alarm with much more concrete information, and we should all demand that Congress meet to approve the administration’s request of $1.9 billion to seriously deter its spread. It’s time to replace reassuring rhetoric with reassuring action.

Darlene K. Drummond is an Assistant Professor in the Institute for Writing & Rhetoric at Dartmouth College and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.


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